I have to say that, without doubt, the choreography in the Duluth Playhouse’s production of Chicago is the best I have seen on the local stage since I moved to the area from the East coast. Much credit goes to Christine Gradl Seitz, Elyse Snider, both choreographers of the show, and to Paige Kohler, assistant choreographer and dance captain. It’s not an easy feat to pull off. But, more credit goes to the dancers. And there is so much dancing in this show that it is a character on its own worthy of note.
Interestingly, the musical Chicago is based on a Broadway play of the same name, written by a journalist, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the 1924 trials of Beaulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, both accused of murder. The characters of Roxy and Velma are composites of the two real-life women in the play. In fact, Gaertner was a cabaret singer. Watkins gained so much of a following for her scintillating newspaper columns about the grisly and scandalous details of the two murderesses that she decided to pen her own stage play. However, we’re more familiar with this incarnation of the tale, choreographed, famously, by Bob Fosse and which opened in 1975 on Broadway, running for nearly a thousand performances before being revived in 1996 for nearly 6,000 more performances.
The story revolves around the professional, Velma Kelly (Jennifer Madill Hagen) a famous vaudevillian accused of murdering her husband and sister, and the wannabe, Roxie Hart (Sarah Diener) who kills her lover. Both end up in the clink awaiting trial, represented by the headline-grabbing, money-loving, Billy Flynn (Calland Metts). In essence, the show is an entertaining take on celebrity and crime. But, who cares about that, really, when Chicago brings to the stage some of the best music and moves seen on any stage?
The significant challenge of performing these higher-end musicals on community theatre stages is finding the right combination of vocal power and fancy footwork. It’s a considerable risk to put on a show like Chicago. Jennifer Madill Hagen’s Velma comes on stage in the opening number looking lean and mean, flooded in light until the opening bars of “All That Jazz” come floating down from the perched live band. What the opening number lacks in kick power, vocally, is made up by the stunning tableau seen on stage. From the lighting design, of course flawlessly executed by Jim Eischen, to the choreography, to the vocal harmony by the ensemble, it is apparent that what we’re seeing here on the community theatre stage is steroidic in nature. Madill Hagen’s moves are fluid, polished, and really, on par with any professional actress dancing this role. She performs generously with her fellow dancers on stage and the choreography design of the show is also generous with the ensemble, each number relying on the integrated efforts of all the dancers, not just the principals, in bringing every element together. There’s star power on stage in more ways than just the expected. The most impressive thing about Madill Hagen’s dance acumen is that she makes it look effortless; as if she moves about her daily life in the way she has brought Velma Kelly to the Playhouse stage. Where her talents clearly lie best in the choreography of the show, Madill Hagen also turns in an energetic performance with plenty of attitude, and sheer will to entertain. Stand out moments in the show are clearly her “reveal” at the top as well as “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.”
Long overdue has been the chance for the multi-talented Sarah Diener to headline a show here in Duluth, after a number of well-received supporting roles, especially with Renegade Theater Company. Diener’s Roxie is scrappy, profane, and greedy. Coupled with her proven acting ability in this show is Diener’s tight moves dancing the role on stage. Her first number, “Funny Honey” had some challenges vocally, competing with the band relative to her blocking on stage and with Greg Anderson (Amos) shouting over her vocals (let’s remember who’s the focus of the scene, here). But, beyond that initial difficulty, Diener’s performance during “Roxie” was a triumph–playful, narcissistic, and well-executed vocally. Not to be missed is Diener and Calland Metts during “We Both Reached for the Gun” — a first act stunner.
Madill Hagen and Diener’s on stage chemistry is good. During the show, both actresses play chase with each other with believable flair whether it’s Velma’s complete dismissal of Roxie in the beginning of the show to the progression of jealousy of each other’s headline grabbing chess moves with the Chicagoland media to their grudging and then mutually beneficial pairing of talents to get the limelight.
Calland Metts turns in a virtuoso performance vocally and otherwise as Velma and Roxie’s celebrity attorney, Billy Flynn–part tough guy, part media manipulator and smooth talker, Metts’ smarmy smile and his gravitas on stage in the role is a well-informed casting choice and a chance for Metts to show off his best performance abilities. ”All I Care About” and “We Both Reached for the Gun” best showcase his time on stage more than the expected turn in “Razzle Dazzle” which seemed a bit over-produced. Metts’ moments on stage where he is the focal point allow the subtleties of his expressions and cadence of voice to be fully realized and appreciated.
Priscilla McRoberts (Matron Mama Morton) brings down the house during her exceptionally well-done performance of “When You’re Good to Mama.” McRoberts’ take on Mama is tender-hearted but tough, gaining her fair share of laughs from the audience. McRoberts and Madill Hagen’s rendition of “Class” is fun and well-paced with a decent job on the vocals. Character, attitude, and good direction go a long way to making even the second-tier numbers of a show pop. Rounding out the central characters is Greg J. Anderson as Roxie’s long-suffering husband, Amos. Anderson’s performance may be a little too long-suffering, however. The warbling voice is exactly reminiscent of the role he capably performed in The Full Monty a couple of years ago, but, in this show’s context, doesn’t play as well.
I’ve said many times before that a show’s ensemble members are the glue that brings all the elements together. The choreographers of the show know that fact to perfection. ”Cell Block Tango” is one of the show’s signature numbers and it also gives some of the ensemble a particular chance to show their moves on stage. Riveting would be the word to describe the choreography designed by Christine Seitz for this number. Paige Kohler, Alaina Konstenius, Ashley Matheson, Suzie Baer, Teran Ferguson, and Samantha Ekeroth as the murderesses are delightfully evil on stage with deft handling of their moves and the quick paces of their individual moments detailing the demises of their mates. The flashes of red in the lighting and in the handkerchiefs ripped from the victims during the number are a visual something extra that is quite appealing.
The powerhouses of costume, scenic, and lighting design were called in to give Chicago the look and feel that it needs on the Playhouse stage to pull off the big musical look in a relatively small venue. Curtis Phillips’ set design is gritty and versatile. Thankfully, not much has to be moved or set up or dropped down to create the drama needed on stage. This show is dance-driven and musically focused and the set design doesn’t get in the way. Jim Eischen’s lighting design is dramatic and generous to the actors on par with any professional production. And, without fail, Carole Brossart’s costume design suits well the performers’ body types and the action happening on stage–especially crucial for the dancers. The live music conducted by Blake Peterson is a great benefit to the show and, for the most part, doesn’t compete with the vocal ranges of the actors.
With a show as big as Chicago, the only ways the show can go is good or bad. With the visually stunning choreography being the biggest asset of the production, Seitz and company have capably and successfully executed one of the more ambitious musical projects the Playhouse has put on stage. From the ensemble to the principal actors, not a moment is wasted nor a body unused to its full potential in realizing the vision of the script and music. In a community like Duluth, the native talent proves again, with few exceptions, that they are people capable of pushing themselves to performances worthy of note. Opening night’s audience was attentive, vocal, and by all accounts, grateful by their enthusiastic applause, for the tour de force put on before them.
CHICAGO. Music by John Kander with lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. With Greg J. Anderson, Drew Autio, Suzie Baer, Jen Bergum, Seth Colvin, Jesse Davis, Sarah Diener, Kyle Duncan, Samantha Ekeroth, Teran Ferguson, Paige Kohler, Alaina Konstenius, Jennifer Madill Hagen, Priscilla McRoberts, Ashley Matheson, Gabriel Mayfield, Calland Metts, Joel Moline, Dan Riley, Quincey Roisum, and G. Spelvin. Directed by Christine Gradl Seitz for the Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan Street, Duluth. The show runs through April 17. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Matinee curtain: 2 p.m. This review was based on the March 31 opening night performance.